Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
April 3, 2000
1) Lou Reed “Possum Time” from “Ecstasy” (Reprise)
It’s 18 minutes long and you can play it all day long. A huge fuzztone that sounds more like a construction site than a guitar sets an implacable, unsatisfiable zigzag line in play. “It’s possum time!” a slightly demented, definitely pleased man announces. “I feel like a possum in every way!” In fact he sounds like a man who won’t back down, and you follow him, at a distance, on a nighttown walk. When it ends it’s as if the sun is coming up — so soon? Already? You’ve seen nothing that isn’t ugly, but the walk has its own rewards. “The only one left standing,” Reed says, sounding tired. He’s grown all the way into his role as bad conscience — his own and the nation’s. He may even grow out of it, but not yet. When, in the Velvet Underground, in another era, a young man who sounded old sang with fright and nausea of “all the dead bodies piled up in mounds,” who’d have thought that more than three decades later he’d still be prowling the streets looking for more of them, more bodies, more mounds, like a detective of the obvious?
2) Phil Collins “You’ll Be in My Heart” best original song (Academy Awards, Mar. 26)
Given that as an original song “You’ll Be in My Heart” barely exists, Collins sang the hell out of it — while wearing the night’s best-looking suit.
3) Nick Tosches “The Devil and Sonny Liston” (Little, Brown)
This short, clean book about the St. Louis Stagger Lee who in 1964, in one of the most shocking upsets in boxing history, lost the heavyweight championship to Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali, soon enough), is a keen reminder of the limits of biography — limits biographers almost never respect. That is: The biographer’s subject has no inner life. No matter how many letters, diaries or suicide notes the subject leaves behind, all you have are lies. You can’t know what goes on in someone else’s head — unless you are a novelist, and are willing to imagine another’s inner life, at which point biography ceases and fiction begins. So as you pass through this account of a man whose notoriety probably bought him only a few more years than he could have expected from a life on the street, don’t wonder what, in the depths of his soul, he really thought. As Tosches tries to decide why Liston was found dead in his house in Las Vegas in 1971 — dead, probably, for a week — think about what Tosches calls “the unseen sediment, detritus, and sludge beneath the course of this book.” He means the world of manipulation and enforcement, murder and fraud, that the biographer’s illusion that we can know what makes a person tick allows us to ignore.
Two albums from the same label with the American flag imprinted on the discs. Aparo is a shaved-head guy who poses in front of urban wreckage but sings like a sensitive ’70s troubadour; Smith bleeds for all humankind, but she’s noisier. On “Strange Messengers” she condemns slavery. Just as she once confidently declared herself a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger,” now she slumps to the ground as the whip cuts her flesh and her children are sold down the river. “History sends such strange messengers,” she announces: Guess who? With her band just a megaphone and her singing merely a flag to wave, she pulls out all the stops, shouting: “My people!/I speak to you!/I burned, I swung, I toiled for you and your children!” But now all her people do is “burn out your lives on crack and sorrowful stories,” betraying their ancestors, betraying her. (By the way, what’s wrong with sorrowful stories?) She hasn’t even gotten to Vietnam yet, or the sneering twist she gives the words “Colonial-ism, imperial-ism,” as if the real purpose of history were to confirm the hipster’s superiority to it. “Donna, donna, donna/I’m the world’s Madonna,” National Lampoon’s “Radio Dinner” once had Joan Baez warble; Smith has taken over, but somehow lost Baez’s fab sense of humor along the way.
6) Dennis Miller “Rant on Patriotism” “Dennis Miller Live” (HBO, Mar. 24)
“You want to dwell on this country’s fuck-ups? Be my guest … But you might want to remember that when you stomped into CIA headquarters waving your Freedom of Information Act permission slip you were not summarily hustled into a damp sub-basement where a jackbooted sadist with one eyebrow and tinted aviators Elvis wouldn’t even fucking wear is smoking unfiltered cigarettes that smell like a skunk getting a perm as he clamps jumper cables on your nipples and starts humming the love theme from ‘Midnight Express.’” Too true. On the other hand, there’s that scene in “Top Secret!” where Val Kilmer is being tortured by East German secret police. Delirious, he sees himself wandering the empty halls of his all-American high school: He registered for a class, he forgot all about it, now he’s trying to get to the final, but school was over last week, and … and then he comes to. The East Germans crank the juice on the jumper cables, but a satisfied smile spreads over Kilmer’s face: It was only a dream.
7) Surveillance Camera Players “1984″ on “Surveillance Camera Players” ($15 cash only, to Not Bored!, POB 1115, New York, NY 10009-9998)
This small troupe stages plays in front of surveillance cameras, often in subways, then films the action off public monitor screens. Here, with four actors, eight minutes (out of a 45-minute video) and a pidgin comic-book script (signs held up by a man in a grinning death’s-head mask, I.D. placards around the necks of Winston and Julia), the story comes across: Because it’s so familiar a few slogans and the right setting can call the whole thing back, especially when weird organ-like music is leaking in from another corridor, people pass by the show as if it’s invisible, and the primitivism of the dramaturgy reduces Orwell’s prophecy to the scale of litter. “WE ARE THE DEAD” reads the lovers’ sign; Death’s Head holds up the novus ordo seclorum Masonic pyramid from the dollar bill. “Can I ask you what you’re doing here?” says a man with a security guard’s menacing politeness. “Taping this,” says a woman. “Do you have a permit for this?” Death’s Head holds up “ROOM 101.” “You don’t need a permit to do this,” the woman says. “You don’t?” “Why are you guys doing this?” says a second man. “To show that surveillance cameras are everywhere,” says the woman. “Yeah,” the man laughs, “but who doesn’t know that?” Death’s Head shoots Winston in the head; from somewhere, there’s applause.
8) “They Can’t Sing … But They Can Play” (Oakland Athletics TV commercial)
The team’s youngest ballplayers take turns on a ratty high school auditorium stage where a bored, smiling, middle-aged music teacher is playing the organ. With cracking voices and expressions of absolute sincerity they apply themselves to a song that was a hit well before any of them were born: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” here killed deader in under a minute than countless karaoke bars have managed in decades.
9) Rosie and the Originals “The Best of Rosie and the Originals” (Ace)
For the 1960 “Angel Baby”; a lovely, previously unreleased cover of the Students’ 1958 “I’m So Young” (“Can’t marry no one”); and a study of how a group with one perfect moment in it tries to stave off the inevitable.
10) Ass Ponys “Swallow You Down” from “Some Stupid with Flare Gun” (Checkered Past)
This is what the Twin Cites’ TwinTone sound of the 1980s was for — the Replacements, H|sker D|, Soul Asylum and Babes in Toyland using guitars to render ordinary stuff heroic, tragic, a thrill — but now it’s 20 years later in Ohio and the guys in the band are promising a suicidal friend they won’t walk away, not ever. They build the music until it’s too good to let loose, so they let it sweep them up, riding a sunny, rising melody for “I won’t let them swallow” — and then crashing hard for “you down,” paying off the loan the first five words took out on a pledge easier to make than to keep. This is what it’s all for.
The Rude Mechs' theatrical adaptation of Greil Marcus' book "Lipstick Traces" will play Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at DiverseWorks in Houston. For more columns by Greil Marcus, visit his column archive.More Greil Marcus.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
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